London's animal inhabitants
Erinaceus europaeusDescription Small, bristly creatures with long snouts. Hedgehogs have five toes on their front paws and only four on their rear toes. Habitat Regent’s Park.When to see them After dark. Notes Hedgehogs are dying out at a rate of about a fifth of the population every four years and are expected to be extinct in the UK by 2025. Hedgehogs used to be relatively common in central London but now only Regent’s Park still has them. The hedgehog can jump two feet in the air but is remarkably stupid. The Guardian reported that ‘One owner tried to teach his hedgehog a simple lesson – open the red door for lunch – 4,000 times. It looked the other way.’
The same article continued – and try to read this without welling up – ‘Because its spines are remarkably strong and elastic, and will cushion any fall, hedgehogs are perfectly happy to fall into cattle grids, pits and cellars because they bounce on landing. They don’t think about how to get out afterwards. They doze in long summer grass where strimmers chop them up. They get tangled up in tennis nets. They die inside expanded polystyrene cups. The hedgehog smells something delicious left in the bottom of the cup, pushes its snout in to lick up the remains and then finds the cup stuck to its prickles. Many have been found dead with yoghurt pots and ice-cream containers clamped to their faces.’
Poor, poor, stupid hedgehog.
Pelecanus onocro- talus and Pelecanus occidentalisDescription Large birds with enormous, pouched bills and long wings.Habitat Duck Island, St James’s Park.When to see them The pelicans get fed fresh fish at 3pm every day, but if you are very lucky, you might see one of them eat a live pigeon! If not, the video is still on YouTube.Notes London pelicans were introduced to St James’s Park in 1664 as a gift from the Russian ambassador. There are currently four Great White Pelicans and one Louisiana Brown Pelican living in the park.
Northern bottlenose whale
Hyperoodon ampullatusDescription Small-beaked whale, variable in colour. Small, triangular, peaked dorsal fin about two thirds of the way down the back. The broad tail flukes are unnotched. That’s unnotched, people.Habitat Natural History Museum.When to see them 10am-5.50pm every day.Notes This was the whale that had London all astir last year when she sailed down the Thames earning plucky tabloid headlines and cheers – hurrah, hurrah! – before she convulsed and died, crushed by her own body weight and suffering multiple organ failure and dehydration. The carcass is now in the Natural History Museum, but fear not, for the Thames is also home to the occasional bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) or harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). It’s better than nothing.
Sciurus carolinensisDescription Cute, grey, slightly manic, bushy tail.Habitat All over London.When to see them During the day, when they’re out looking for food. Often your food.Notes Playing a constant cat-and-mouse game (sorry for the confusion) with the sort of people who like to leave food out for birds, the grey squirrel is not the most popular of London’s pests, perhaps because its introduction to the UK from America in 1876 has resulted in the almost-complete obliteration of our even cuter native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). While you’d have to travel to Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour to see the native reds closest to the capital, there are reckoned to be around 3 million greys in the UK, although there have been attempts to limit their population by feeding them birth-control pills.
Dragonflies and damselflies
VariousDescription Dragonflies perch with their wings extended while damselflies lie them along the abdomen. Habitat Ponds, rivers, canals and streams. At Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park (www. urbanecology.org.uk), wardens will supply you with pond-dipping nets and trays, magnifiers, bug jars and binoculars.When to see them This is the very end of the prime spotting season – they only live for four months. General Older than dinosaurs, dragonflies have been in London since the UK had a subtropical climate. There are dozens of species in London, the most common being the common darter (Sympetrum striolatum) and the ruddy carter (Sympetrum sanguinem), which sound like good names for pubs but are actually bright orangey-red dragonflies. You can also see the emperor (Anax imperator), one of the country’s largest dragonflies, bright blue with bright green eyes and found mostly around garden ponds.
Passer domesticusDescription Tiny brown bird with penchant for dust baths.Habitat Used to be a London mainstay, but now in drastic decline.When to see them Sparrows nest from March until July, usually under the eaves of buildings, but occasionally in dense shrubs and bushes.General Nobody seems quite sure why the once ubiquitous sparrow is in such alarming decline in London, but one reason could be the reintroduction of the self-defining sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus). In 2005, a sparrowhawk was responsible for a particularly gruesome hit before a live audience of twitchers at the London Wetland Centre when it caught and devoured a rare spotted crake (Porzana porzana) that had only recently been sighted in London. Meanwhile, as the sparrow becomes ever rarer, his less cute cockney contemporary, the rock pigeon (Columba livia), goes from strength to strength.
Rattus norvegicusDescription Big brown mice.Habitat Six feet away, often in wheely-bins behind restaurants. When to see them They’re usually active at night.General The notorious London rat is getting bigger, stronger and living longer thanks to a protein-heavy diet of discarded burgers, kebabs and fruit. Monster rats measuring 22 inches have been caught in south London, almost double the rodent’s average size. Fact: rat’s teeth grow five inches a year and are stronger than industrial diamonds.
Mus musculusDescription Small, filthyHabitat The Northern Line. When to see them Generally at night, although on the tube you can see them scurrying out of tunnels at any time. General The house pet of the London Underground, nobody knows how many thousands of dust-covered mice live down there on the tracks, eating discarded newspapers and running away from trains. Possibly the dirtiest commuters in London, other than that bloke who was flashing at Waterloo and certainly wasn’t a senior judge. Strangely fascinating.
Arvicola amphibiuDescription Nervous little furry swimming rat.Habitat Water voles live on the banks of slow-flowing or static watercourses – including canals and ponds – and are being reintroduced to Lea Valley. When to see them They can be seen by day, but are very camera shy. When alarmed, they ‘plop’ characteristically into the water.General The water vole is struggling badly in the UK, with numbers down about 95 per cent since 1960 from 8 million to 220,000, partly because of the disastrous decision by animal-rights activists who hadn’t done much research, to release American mink (Mustela vison), a voracious predator of the vole, from fur farms .
Lutra lutraDescription Elongated body, short legs with clawed webbed feet, flat head, small eyes and ears, broad muzzle with prominent whiskers, and a thick tail.Habitat Lea Valley.When to see them They’re shy and nocturnal, so you’ll be lucky to spot one. If you do, send us a picture. General Last year, a dead otter was discovered on the Highway in Wapping, suggesting that there was a hitherto unknown community of the threatened species living somewhere around the Lea Valley area – the nearest logical place the animal could have come from.
Corvus coraxDescription Huge black bird, differs from crows by having a larger and heavier bill, a shaggy throat, and a wedge-shaped tail.Habitat Tower of London. When to see them Tues-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun-Mon 10am-6pm. General Charles II decreed there should always be at least six ravens in the Tower and there are currently seven living there, thus sparing the nation from instant collapse, plagues of pestilence, boils and being ignored by tourists. They are Gwylum, Thor, Hugine, Munin, Branwen, Bran, Gundulf and Baldrick, and are looked after by Derrick Coyle, the ravenmaster, who warns, ‘One lapse, a bit of over-familiarity, and if a bird goes for you it could have your eye out.’ He’s ex-military, so he should know.Have you spotted any of the creatures in our guide? If you’ve got a photo of animals prowling the urban jungle we want to see it. Send it to email@example.com
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